Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parallel Lives?: Saul and Alexander; David and Ptolemy I; Solomon and Ptolemy II

This paper seeks to document several apparent similarities between the biblical stories of the lives of Saul, David and Solomon, on the one hand, and the historical accounts of the lives of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE), Ptolemy I Soter (d. 282 BCE), and Ptolemy II Philadelphus (d. 246 BCE), on the other.  I have not attempted to identify all potential similarities, and this paper does not document many of the parallels I have found.  Rather, this paper focuses on what I believe to be the strongest parallels, which for all three pairs of kings relate primarily to the narratives of their accession to the throne.  For clarity, my analysis focuses solely on the stories of the lives of Saul, David and Solomon found in the books of Samuel and Kings.  The stories in Chronicles appear to be later and omit some of the details from Samuel and Kings upon which I rely.

Previous authors have noted the transference of tales about Alexander the Great to biblical heroes,[1] and Edwyn R. Bevan noted many parallels between Ptolemy II and Solomon, which I present in the appended charts, but I am unaware of any prior discussion of the similarities in the accession narratives of Saul, David and Solmon to those of Alexander, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, respectively.  To be fair, I was able to identify the parallels in the accession narratives of Saul and Alexander only after doing the same for David and Ptolemy I, which revealed some similarities in the relationships between Saul and David, on the one hand, and Alexander and Ptolemy I, on the other. It is this feature of the identified parallels-- i.e., similarities in the details of the relationship between the first king and the second king, and between the second king and the third— that in many ways is the most interesting and compelling, in part because we do not see it in subsequent successions starting with Rehoboam.

The apparent parallels are documented in three sets of tables, one set for each pair of kings.  I will, however, provide a brief summary here that places several of the parallels into a broader narrative context:

In 346 BCE, Isocrates and his fellow Panhellenists, like the elders of Israel, wanted a leader (specifically Philip II of Macedon) to unite the Hellenes and prosecute a crusade against Persia.  By 338 BCE, Isocrates et al. had gotten a lot more than they had bargained for: Philip II was de facto king of Greece, although this fact was obscured by the amphictyonic League of Corinth.  Thus, the fact that all of Greece was ruled by a single king did not become truly clear until after Alexander the Great succeeded his father as king of Macedon and hegemon of the League of Corinth in 336 BCE and subsequently put down several revolts throughout Greece.  Just as Saul erased any doubts that he should be king by defeating the Ammonites, so did Alexander quell any doubts that the power he wielded was that of a king of all the Hellenes. 

In 334 BCE, after having consolidated his power among the Hellenes, Alexander began his campaign against the Persian Empire, winning every battle against the Persian armies and establishing himself as King of Asia in 330 BCE with the death of Darius III.  Shortly, thereafter, Ptolemy I rose to prominence in Alexander’s court, and like David, Ptolemy I was made a member of Alexander’s bodyguard and given his first independent commands, in which he was quite successful, if he did say so himself: on at least one occasion, Ptolemy I in his history of Alexander more than implied that he had surpassed Alexander in judgment, skill and accomplishment on the battlefield.  While we have no examples of Alexander being jealous of or adverse to Ptolemy I, as we do of Saul and David, perhaps Ptolemy’s history provided the fodder for imagining how a king would react to being shown up by his inferior. 

By 323 BCE, Alexander was dead, Ptolemy I was satrap of Egypt, and Perdiccas ruled as regent over Alexander’s kingdom for Alexander’s brother and infant son.  Within two years, Perdiccas died after marching on Ptolemy I in Egypt.  Like Ish-bosheth, Perdiccas was assassinated in his tent by two officers in his army.  Ptolemy I ultimately declared himself king (and pharaoh) of Egypt, and his combined reign as satrap and king over Egypt was, much like David’s over Israel, about 40 years.  Ptolemy I died in 282 BCE.

Before he died, Ptolemy I made Ptolemy II coregent in 285 BCE, bypassing the claim to the throne of Ptolemy II’s older half-brother, Ptolemy Ceraunus, who had been heir apparent.  Not only did Ptolemy II displace his own Adonijah, but he banished his own Abiathar, Demetrius of Phalerum, his father’s trusted counselor who had sided with Ptolemy Ceraunus over Ptolemy II.  Ptolemy II would go on to marry the daughter of a pharaoh (his own full sister, Arsinoe II) and build a great merchant navy system that traded with ports on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, becoming the wealthiest king of his time and widely known for his love of knowledge and of women.  Ptolemy II’s reign, like Solomon’s, was about 40 years.  Ptolemy II died in 246 BCE.

If the stories of Saul, David and Solomon are based on the lives of Alexander, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, respectively, then the composition of Samuel and Kings likely did not occur prior to the death of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in 246 and more likely did not occur for several decades after that.  Of course, this affects the earliest possible date of composition for the entire Deuteronomistic History, as well as that of the compilation of the Primary History as a whole.  For a variety of reasons I will provide later, including the fact that I read the stories of David and Solomon as including a polemic against the Ptolemies, I place the terminus post quem to 199 BCE, after Antiochus III wrested control of Syria from the Ptolemies.

Click here to see a table mapping biblical characters to Hellenistic figures.

The elders of Israel demand a king. 
Isocrates, in his later years at (about age 90) asks Philip II of Macedon to unite the Greek states under his leadership against Persia.  Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander.  See, e.g., Isoc. 5.9, Isoc.  5.16

Samuel anoints Saul and proclaims him as the first king of the twelve tribes of Israel, which the people of Israel accept, albeit with some skepticism, which is quickly quelled by Saul’s defeat of the Ammonites.  1 Samuel 10:1-27, 11:1-156
In 336 BCE, Alexander III succeeds Philip II as king of Macedon and hegemon of the League of Corinth, an amphictyony.  Grainger, Alexander the Great Failure, Chapter 5.  News of Philip’s death results in revolts in Thebes, Athens, Thessaly and Thrace, which Alexander quickly and successfully puts down.  Id.
Through the League of Corinth, which was made possible by the Panhellenism advocated by Isocrates, Philip II maintained the fiction that the various tribes and city states of Greece were independent, but he had, in fact, succeeded in conquering Greece, and his election as hegemon to enforce militarily the treaty of the League institutionalized his victory. See, Grainger, Alexander the Great Failure, Chapter 5.  Technically, however, it appears that neither Philip nor Alexander were ever recognized in Greece as king of any Hellenistic state other than Macedon.

On the other hand, Alexander’s role as hegemon of the amphictyonic League of Corinth was essentially the same as Saul’s role as king of Israel: i.e., its supreme military leader.
Saul leads his people in military victory over their enemies, including the Philistines.  1 Samuel 14:47-47,
Alexander led the Hellenistic armies to victory over the Persian Empire.

Saul makes David his armor bearer (1 Samuel 16:21) and eventually commander of his bodyguard.  1 Samuel 22:14.
Alexander made Ptolemy I a member of his Royal Bodyguard, or somatophylakes, in 329 BCE.  Alexander also named Ptolemy I as taster (edeatros).
There is no reason to believe that Ptolemy ever commanded the Royal Bodyguard.  From everything I have read, that was most likely the role of Perdiccas.
Saul becomes jealous of David’s success and seeks to kill him, directly and indirectly, while David studiously avoids taking Saul’s life (and defects to the Philistines). 1 Samuel 18:6 – 26:25

The parallels here, if any, are thematic and, therefore, tenuous. 

For example, we have the incident of Alexander, in a drunken rage, throwing a spear at Cleitus the Black, killing him.  This was done in the presence of Ptolemy I, who had rushed Cleitus out of the room but could not stop him from returning to confront Alexander.

We also have the incident where, according to Ptolemy, Ptolemy killed an Indian chieftan in single combat by stabbing him through the thigh.  Like the story of David and Goliath, Ptolemy’s story evokes the exploits of Patroclus, thus, both David and Ptolemy are equated with Patroclus in the Iliad.  (See Wajdenbaum, Argonauts at 244-247, and Bosworth’s Alexander and the East., at 45-47).

Bosworth believes that Ptolemy’s history of Alexander was very self-promotional, portraying Ptolemy as equal to, if not superior to Alexander.

Ptolemy I Soter
David takes the bones of Saul from the men of Jabesh-gilead and buries them.

In 321 BCE, Ptolemy I intercepts the funeral cortรจge of Alexander the Great, diverting it to Memphis, Egypt, where the body of Alexander is interred for forty years before Ptolemy II moves it to Alexandria.

Bevan, The House of Ptolemy, p. 19
NOTE: When the chronology of events differs, as here, I prefer the order of the historical accounts.

According to Peter Green “Macedonian custom decreed to be king meant, inter alia, burying your predecessor.” Alexander to Actium, p. 13.  The body of Alexander was, therefore, of great political significance to Alexander’s successors, and Ptolemy’s seizing the body and burying it in Egypt could be interpreted as Ptolemy’s bid for Alexander’s throne.

It is unclear that David burying the bones of Saul would have been significant to the people of Israel, particularly when they first had to be disinterred.  In the Anchor Bible commentaries on Samuel, McCarter makes no note of the significance of the act other than to attempt to harmonize the account of 1 Samuel 31:12-13 by arguing that what David received was Saul’s ashes, not his bones.   (In 1 Samuel 31:12-13 the people of Jabesh-gilead burned Saul’s bones and buried the ashes.)   
Abner, commander of Saul’s army, assists Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, in being declared king of all of Israel,  2 Samuel 2:8-9.
In the Partition of Babylon (323 BCE), Alexander’s generals agreed that Perdiccas would rule Alexander’s empire as regent for Alexander’s half-brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s infant son, Alexander IV. 
Antipater was not present at the Partition of Babylon.  Alexander to Actium, p. 8.  Nevertheless, he was made Satrap of Macedon, Greece, Illyria and Epirus. 

Oddly, I believe that 2 Samuel 2:8-9 is the first mention of Ish-bosheth.  He is not listed in 1 Samuel 14:49, nor is he listed among the sons killed with Saul.  Alexander IV was born after Alexander the Great died, so this may explain why Ish-bosheth is not introduced until after Saul’s death.  Like Ish-bosheth when he took the throne, Perdiccas was about 40 years old when he became regent.  And like Ishbosheth’s reign, Perdiccas held the regency for two years before his death.
Abner changes allegiance from Ish-bosheth to David after Ish-bosheth accuse Abner of seeking to lie with Rizpah, former concubine of Saul. 
In 321 BCE, Antipater joins forces with other former generals of Alexander, including Ptolemy I, against Perdiccas.

The Yale Anchor Bible commentary says that what Abner was accused of was tantamount to accusing him of seeking the throne himself.

We know from the historical sources that Antipater allied himself with Ptolemy because he feared Perdiccas was seeking the throne for himself.  While this may have been based on the fact that Perdiccas was marching on Egypt, the fact is that Perdiccas also had been engaged to Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter, but broke off the engagement in 322 BCE because Olympias, Alexander’s mother, offered him the hand of Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister.   One must wonder if Antipater would have allied himself with Ptolemy if Perdiccas went forward with the marriage to Nicaea.  In any event, if the biblical narrative is based on the historical account, there is an inversion here that is made necessary by the fact that Perdiccas was merely the regent (i.e., Ish-bosheth already had the throne; Perdiccas did not).
Ish-bosheth, the king of Israel, wages war on David, the king of Judah.  2 Samuel 3:1
Perdiccas marches against Ptolemy I in Egypt.  321 BCE.
Of course, at this point Ptolemy I was merely satrap of Egypt and not king. 

Assuming a connection between the narratives, Egypt is thus identified with Judah, and the rest of Alexander’s former kingdom is identified with Israel.  For other reasons, I believe that Israel is more properly identified with the Seleucid empire only, as by the time I believe Samuel was written (c. 197-189 BCE), the only parts of Alexander’s former empire that remained free of Roman control were the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires.  In this sense, the “United Monarchy” of the Hellenistic monarchs consisted of two monarchs, united by treaty, at least for the reigns of the founders of the dynasties, Ptolemy I and Seleucus.
Baanah and Rechab, captains of Ish-bosheth’s raiding parties, assassinate Ish-bosheth in his home.. 2 Samuel 4:5-7.  Ish-bosheth reigned for 2 years.
Peithon and Antigenese, officers in Perdiccas’ army, assassinate Perdiccas in his tent.  321 BCE (2 years after becoming regent)

David orders Baanah and Rechab executed.  2 Samuel 4:8-12.
At Ptolemy I’s suggestion, Peithon and Antigenese are made acting regents, replacing Perdiccas temporarily.  321 BCE

Joab murders Abner.  2 Samuel 3:27.
Antipater succeeded Perdiccas as regent as a result of the Partition of Triparadisus of 321 BCE.  He died in 319 BCE, apparently of natural causes.
NOTE: When the chronology of events differs, as here, I prefer the order of the historical accounts.

David anointed king of Israel.  2 Samuel 5:1-5
Ptolemy I remained satrap of Egypt, eventually becoming king (or pharaoh) of Egypt.
Alexander’s empire was never reunited under Hellenistic rule.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Solomon is the son of David and Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah, a fighter in David’s army.
Ptolemy II is the son of Ptolemy I and Berenice I, the widow of Philip, an “obscure Macedonian.”  At least one historian believes Philip was an officer in Alexander’s army, but the ancient sources that have come down to us don’t say this explicitly.

We know very little of who this Philip was, although Pausanias claimed he was “of no note and of lowly origin.”  I agree with Chris Bennet (n. 5) that this seems unlikely as Berenice I was the grand niece of Antipater and, therefore, a distant collateral relative of the Argead royal family.  Droysen speculates that Philip was the son of Amyntas, a military officer in Alexander’s army.  I have identified Philip son of Agathocles and brother of Lysimachus as a second possibility.  This Philip died c. 328 while campaigning with Alexander in Persia.  A third possibility is a Philip who was satrap of Sogdiana but was reassigned as satrap of Parthia during the Partition of Triparadisus in 321 BCE.  He died c. 318 BCE.

While Berenice I is described as Philip’s widow, it is not clear from the sources whether she was widowed prior to traveling to Egypt in the wedding party of her cousin Eurydice (Bennett’s reliance on Pausanias 1.6.8 to conclude she was already a widow when she arrived in Egypt is misplaced). 

We know, however, that Bathsheba was married to Uriah when she began her liason with David.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Solomon overcomes the claim to the throne of his older half-brother and the heir-apparent, Adonijah.  1 Kings 1:1-31
In 285 BCE, Ptolemy II overcame the claim of his older half-brother and the heir-apparent, Ptolemy Ceraunos to the throne.

Solomon is anointed and announced as king prior to David’s death.  1 Kings 1:32-40

David dies soon thereafter, having reigned for forty years. 1 Kings 2:10-12
Ptolemy II was made coregent by Ptolemy I in 284 BCE, two years before Ptolemy I’s death in 282 BCE, after reigning for 41 years, if counted from the start of his satrapy.  See Chris Bennett’s site here and here.

Solomon has Adonijah executed for asking to wed David’s concubine (which is tantamount to claiming the throne for himself).  1 Kings 2:13-25
Ptolemy II executed his half-brother Argaeus for plotting rebellion in 282 or 281 BCE.  Pausanias 1.7.1  See also Chris Bennett’s site, here and here.
Ptolemy Ceraunos left Egypt and briefly became king of Macedon.  See here
Solomon banishes Abiathar and removes him from the high priesthood because of Abiathar’s support of Adonijah’s claim to the throne.  1 Kings 2:26-27
Ptolemy II banished Demetrius of Phalerum from Egypt for having supported Ptolemy Ceraunos’ claim to the throne.

Solomon marries the daughter of Pharaoh. 1 Kings 3:1.
Ptolemy II married his full sister, Arsinoe II, probably in 273 or 272 BCE.  Pausanias 1.7.1.  See Chris Bennett’s site here.

Solomon builds a house for Yahweh (the Temple, a house for himself, and a house for the daughter of Pharaoh. 1 Kings 6:1 - 7:8.
Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II were incorporated into the dynastic cult in 273/2 BCE as Sibling Gods.  See Chris Bennett’s site, here and here.
Legends hold that the Torah was translated from Hebrew to Greek in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II.  According to my theory, Ptolemy II did for Yahweh what Ptolemy I did for Serapis: he had a syncretic version of the cult created that would be more familiar to Hellenistic colonists (this time for Syria instead of Egypt).  In this sense, Ptolemy II built a house for Yahweh, just as he did for himself and his sister.
Solomon builds (or rebuilds) many cities including Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, Lower Beth-horon, Baalath, Tamar and many “store” cities throughout the land he controlled. 1 Kings 9:15-22
Ptolemy II built, rebuilt, fortified or expanded many cities throughout Egypt and Syria.  See, Grainger, The Syrian Wars, Chapter 4 “Competitive Developing; See, also, Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlemetns in Syria, the Red Sea Basin and North Africa

Solomon builds a fleet of ships that sailed on the Red Sea and brought back riches to him from Ophir.  1 Kings 9:26-28.
In the time of Ptolemy II, Egypt was the major sea power in the Mediterranean and benefited greatly from sea-based trade with allied states such as Rhodes.  In addition to trade on the Mediterranean, Egypt had several ports on the Red Sea, including Berenike, which was the city previously known as Ezion Geber, and Egypt enjoyed robust trade on the Red Sea with ports in India, as well.  See, Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlemetns in Syria, the Red Sea Basin and North Africa, p. 240-279.

Solomon was known for his wisdom.  See, e.g., 1 Kings 3:16-28, 1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:1-7
Ptolemy II was known for his intellect and commitment to intellectual pursuits.  See, e.g., Bevan, House of Ptolemy, Chapter 3 at p. 77-78.
“Ptolemy II died at the age of sixty-three. He was a parallel to Solomon in his wealth, surpassing that of any other king of his time, in his intellectual interests, in his proclivity to fall under the sway of women.” – E. R. Bevan.

Also, note the description by Callixeinus of Rhodes of Ptolemy II’s procession in celebration of Dionysus, e.g., thrones of ivory and gold, golden shields, cavalry, chariots, golden goblets, exotic animals, including peacocks, etc.

Athenaeus, Va (starts at paragraph 25)
Solomon was wealthier than any other king of his day.  1 Kings 10:14-26

Egypt was the wealthiest Mediterranean kingdom of its day, and by extension, Ptolemy II was the wealthiest Mediterranean king of his day.  See, e.g., Bevan, House of Ptolemy, Chapter 3 at p. 77-78.
Solomon was known for having many amorous relationships with women.  1 Kings 11:1-3
Ptolemy II was known for having many amorous relationships with women.  See, e.g., Bevan, House of Ptolemy, Chapter 3 at p. 77-78.

Ptolemy II
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
“Perhaps it was less the real Solomon to whom Ptolemy II was a parallel than the ideal Solomon portrayed in the Book of Ecclesiastes — the book written by some world-weary Jew at a date not far off from Ptolemy's time. Ptolemy, too, was a king who had "gathered silver and gold and the peculiar treasure of kings and of provinces," who got him "men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts," who had "proved his heart with mirth and enjoyed pleasure," who had "made great works and builded him houses," who had "given his heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning things that are done under heaven"; and Ptolemy, too, the story says, felt in the end that it was all vanity of vanities. We are told how one day, after a severe attack of gout, he looked out of a window of his palace and saw a group of natives of the poorest class beside one of the canals, eating the scraps they had collected and lying at ease on the hot sand, and cried out in bitterness of spirit that he had not been born as one of them.52 Or perhaps the story is as apocryphal as the words which the writer of Ecclesiastes puts into the mouth of Solomon, and in both cases an imaginative moralist chose a famous king, who had had everything which mind or heart could desire, in order through him to read the world his own lesson of disillusionment.” E. R. Bevan, , House of Ptolemy, Chapter 3 at p. 78, citing Athenaeus, XII 536E

And the same historian tells us, in his twenty-second book that Ptolemaeus the Second, king of Egypt, the most admirable of all princes, and the most learned and accomplished of men, was so beguiled and debased in his mind by his unseasonable luxury, that he actually dreamed that he should live forever, and said that he alone had found out how to become immortal. And once, after he had been afflicted by the gout for many days, when at last he got a little better, and saw through his window-blinds some Egyptians dining by the river-side, and eating whatever it might be that they had, and lying at random on the sand, "O wretched man that I am," said he, "that I am not one of those men!"”  Athenaeus, XII 536E

[1]  Konrad Schmid refers to this in the abstract for his upcoming lecture for the International Conference on “Judea in the Long Third Century BCE.”  For example, compare the story of David pouring water on the ground in 2 Samuel 23:13-17 to the story of Alexander pouring water to the ground in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander at 6.26.1-3.  


  1. Can you explain why Ptolemy/David would want to equate himself (themselves) with Patrocles? Would this have enhanced Ptolemy's/David's exploits by linking them to the heroic deeds described in the Iliad?

    1. First, Ptolemy did not equate himself with David. That was a Seleucid innovation. Bosworth believes that Ptolemy equated himself in his autobiography with a well-known hero of the Illiad to evoke the idea that Ptolemy was equally heroic. I believe that the author of Samuel deliberately referred to another Homeric hero as a hint that David was based on Ptolemy I.

  2. I don't think the difference between a king v. satrap v. regent would have mattered to the people living within those "kingdoms." All three titles were commensurately powerful, and the citizens would have viewed satraps and regents as essentially kings. So the inversion between Ishbosheth's story and Perdiccas' story isn't a big one, and perhaps not even an inversion at all.

  3. Would like more on the Seleucid/Ptolemy treaty, including the Roman component!

  4. Any explanation for the inversion between the story of David ordering Baanah and Rechab executed, and Ptolemy I replacing Perdiccas with Peithon and Antigenese? Is this a later Seleucid change?

    1. The simplest explanation, and the one I came up with initially, was that the inversion was a suggestion of how Ptolemy I should have acted.

    2. What if it was the opposite? What if the Seleucid inversion was to make Ptolemy look bad? What if what Ptolemy actually did (making the assassins regents) mad him look good, i.e., he showed compassion by pardoning the assassins instead of executing them, and the Seleucid inversion of having David execute the assassins was meant to make the hero Ptolemy/David look cruel? I suppose it all comes down to: where does the story of Ptolemy making the assassins regents come from? From Ptolemy himself?

    3. Let me be more clear: "The simplest explanation, and the one I came up with initially, was that the inversion was a suggestion of how Ptolemy I should have acted had he followed the laws of the Primary History." The intent of the authors of the Primary History was to drive a wedge between the Yahwists of Palestine and the Ptolemies of Egypt by demonstrating that the Ptolemies did not keep the laws of the Primary History (and suggesting that the Seleucid did or would have).

      By Macedonian standards, what Ptolemy did was well-regarded, even by Seleucus himself, who benefited greatly from both the assassination and its fallout (he became satrap of Babylon, which established his claim to later become king of Babylon and his empire as a whole).

      I doubt that executing the assassins of a king would be judged as "cruel" by anyone in those days. But rewarding those assassins could lead to the conclusion that the one who rewarded them was complicit in the assassination. (Ptolemy did not "pardon" the assassins, he promoted them.)

      "I suppose it all comes down to: where does the story of Ptolemy making the assassins regents come from? From Ptolemy himself?"

      We don't know. There were at least three histories of this period written in the fourth century BCE, and none has survived. Our knowledge of what happened comes from later histories that do not attribute the source(s) used.

  5. And Alexander's empire may never have been united under Hellenistic rule, but isn't it possible that Ptolemy's "derfeat" of Perdiccas, despite Anitpater's succession as regent, was perceived as a victory of one of Alexander's successors over the other? That Ptolemy was deemed to have become the ultimate successor?